Boarded up, whitewashed, and graffiti-covered. No sign of life behind dirty windows. There are vacant ghost shops on every main street in Britain. Retail statistics show that 16 shops are closing every day, most of them mothballed by the recession or beaten into submission by the internet.
In the north of England, in towns like Stockport, Burnley, Bolton, and Hartlepool, one in five main street shops are empty. Community halls, police stations, and working men's clubs also stand abandoned, remnants of an era when local family-run firms weren't being undercut into oblivion by the multinationals.
Yet, as these businesses and venues pull down the shutters, a more resilient, recession-proof trade has been stepping into the empty shells they leave behind: illegal cannabis growhouses.
Over the last decade, as the number of shops closing down has risen, so too have the number of cannabis farms discovered hiding behind decaying shop fronts, sucking up electricity and water, inches away from shoppers, police stations, and banks. Each bust tells the story of a once thriving business or community asset recycled to become part of Britain's cannabis cultivation industry.
At first, these high street cannabis farms appeared to be one-offs, unearthed by chance. In 2012 a dog walker in Liverpool was passing a vacated African restaurant when her pet Jack Russell decided to urinate against its shutters. The dog owner was startled to see her pet suddenly jolt and drop dead on the pavement.
As firemen later learned when they forced their way behind the shutters and into the old restaurant, the upstairs had been turned into a makeshift cannabis farm with 55 plants. Bad wiring, caused by an attempt to bypass the electricity meter, had electrified the shutters and killed the dog.
In the last few years these squatter cannabis farms have been popping up behind an array of vacated high street facades: the Blockbusters in Wakefield and a former Barclays bank in Grimsby; a pet shop in Folkestone, a funeral parlor in Burnley, a beauty salon in Llanelli, and a dog grooming shop in Rhondda.
Not forgetting an old Salvation Army hall in the Wirral, a jewelry shop in Bradford, a nail bar in Birmingham, a furniture shop in Huddersfield, a car showroom in Knaresborough, and a convenience store in Selkirk. And most recently, in January, in the old Debenhams building in Derby city center.
You have to feel sorry for the publicans and club owners who've been forced to close their doors because the business of selling legal drugs has failed them, only to see the buildings they vacate being used to grow and distribute illegal drugs. Cannabis growhouses have been discovered, for example, in shut down pubs in Brockley, Manchester, Merthyr, and South Shields and in defunct nightclubs in Bolton, Glamorgan, Sutton, Liverpool, and Swansea.
It was perhaps not what the Lord our savior intended, but cannabis farms have been found inside abandoned churches in Edinburgh, Burnley, and Morecombe. Grows have also been uncovered in a recently abandoned go-kart complex in Ayr, a leisure center in Newport, a disused cinema in Nottingham, and an NHS mental health center in Essex.
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Britain's cannabis cultivation epidemic was originally sparked by the arrival of specialist Vietnamese grow gangs from Canada in the early-2000s. Over the last decade, because of police clampdowns, cannabis cultivation has moved from big grows run by Vietnamese and English gangs in suburbia and rural areas to hard-up individuals getting a crop on in harder to find, smaller grows in urban loft spaces.
In 2012, a report by Leeds City Council acknowledged that "the current financial climate may be encouraging certain members of the community to develop their own cottage industry, cultivating small cannabis farms for additional income".
And some of these people, either through a tip-off or opportunism, have opted against getting caught with a loft full of plants by hiding cannabis cultivations in plain sight: in empty shops and buildings in their local high street. The only problem with the high street grows is that they are more likely to be discovered, especially if you have no aroma control.
One crew of cannabis growers, who had set up a 60-plant farm in an empty high street estate agents in Edinburgh, were forced to start painting the shop front, over and over again, after local shopkeepers began to get suspicious about the curious smell seeping through the whitewashed office windows. After the fifth coat of paint, police raided the farm.
A building doesn't even have to be empty. In April last year a large cannabis farm was found in the building that housed Tiki Tots children's nursery in the well-off Edinburgh neighbourhood of Morningside. As the children were playing downstairs, officers discovered nearly 100 plants being nurtured in a room above the nursery.
Grows have also been set up by shop owners while they are still in business, as a way of keeping the wolf from the door. In 2014, police found a cannabis farm in the back room of a working pub, the Cleveland Arms in Liverpool. The year before, a father and son running a car audio shop in Stockport were rumbled after they decided to supplement their income by getting a crop on in the back room and selling weed alongside subwoofers.
High street cannabis farms are part of a wider infrastructure in which the drug trade operates, just out of view, in our towns and cities. Scratch the surface, from health shops selling dodgy valium and cab firms serving up to college students, to hairdressers and take-aways selling cocaine and crack, and the drug trade is there. There will be at least one shopfront in every high street that owes its very existence to the drug trade.
In Scotland in 2010, for instance, police raided 12 children's nurseries because they were suspected of being set up for money laundering purposes by organised drug gangs. As a Scotland Yard money laundering expert told me in 2012: "If you want to get large amounts of money to be made to look legitimate, then cash businesses are the way forward. And the best cash businesses are high street stores."
But the police are not immune to austerity themselves. They do not have the resources to investigate a seemingly respectable high street shop, or even what might be going on behind the rising numbers of shuttered-up empty stores. Yet as more shops become victim to harsh economic realities, the ever-fluid drug trade – fuelled by unofficial credit, hard cash and catering for an endless demand – will always be there in the background, ready to step in.
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